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Skills training must have one eye on today and one eye on tomorrow


Anthony Harmer, chief executive of ELATT, an education charity which helps people gain long term employment, writes:

Politicians do love to indulge in trying to fix a “broken” system. Witness some of the sweeping changes that create as many new difficulties as they solve; remember Minimum Contract at the Skills Funding Agency? Hundreds of third sector providers in the skills sector pre-2009, now just a handful. Remember Broken Britain? By which measures is Britain less broken now than before?

After a decade of working at a third sector provider of adult skills training, having seen hundreds of young people and adults move into work, supporting dozens of small and medium businesses in the process, I fear that once our broken skills system is “fixed” we may soon see its baby lying in the gutter whilst the bathwater drains into the street. This is absolutely not to say that I cannot see a lot of good in the All Party Parliamentary Group’s analysis.

The desire for far more local influence in the skills system is an excellent one. More local knowledge makes reaction times faster, better informed and better understood - so long as the data that underlines the decisions is good.

But here again the Group is correct: Labour Market Information (LMI) is far from satisfactory. The LMI we receive from Jobcentre Plus reports only on job vacancies advertised through the Jobcentre. Not every employer considers advertising through the job centre, and so for example the LMI data for East London – the home of Tech City - tells us that the majority of vacancies in the borough are for retail, care, cleaning and kitchen staff. It simply does not reflect the entire job market.

I suspect that this talk of broken systems is another step towards a Work Programme style payment-on-results skills system. I hope that the decision makers recognise that there is not always a straight line from the course one studies to the job one ultimately gets. The skills system needs to incorporate progress in learning, not just the final destination of job outcomes. In an environment where jobs are no longer for life, this is more important than ever. People need a wide variety of skills in order to stay competitive, and they need to know how to adapt.

Skills training by its very definition needs to have one eye on today and one eye on tomorrow. Times can change and data can fail to predict it. Incentivise wrongly, and you create your next problem in the process. For 30 years, my organisation has supported training and employment in the digital sector – now a huge growth area for the economy. Six years ago, funders viewed our mission as an anachronism in a retail city.

Now, because of a lack of foresight, the digital sector faces a skills shortage. Compounded by Advanced Learning Loans, we are faced with a skills system that promotes low level training for low level jobs in a country that needs higher level skills in a knowledge economy. With start-ups now unable to secure experienced adults with work history and the right skills-set, surely this is an example of historic policy shooting current businesses in the foot? So, perhaps it will serve as a lesson when we next set about trying to “fix” a broken system.

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